When visitors walk down to Bill and Rose Weber’s basement, they receive a map. The slick handout includes a diagram of the model railroad that winds through the 2,800-square-foot underground space, custom-built by the Webers for this very purpose.

Twelve HO-gauge trains at a time can travel through this world the Webers have created — a replica of the Union Pacific Railroad route from Omaha, Nebraska, to Portland, Oregon. The trains speed past highly detailed miniature scenes, from an amusement park with a tiny working Ferris wheel, to spinning wind turbines and bowing oil wells, a funeral in a graveyard, a soda ash mine, a junkyard and much more. Tiny human and animal figures stand in front of buildings bearing signs smaller than a postage stamp.

The Webers are active members of the National Model Railroad Association’s South Central Wisconsin Division (SCWD), which will host its 50th annual Mad City Model Railroad Show and Sale on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 19, at the Alliant Energy Center.

The sprawling show, like the Webers’ train layout, is meant to be both fun and awe-inspiring. The show will feature at least 20 detailed, operating model railroad layouts with trains in a variety of scales: Z, N, HO, S, O and G. Children will be able to ride a circus train carousel and a large indoor train.

Vendors will stock some 300 tables with model train and railroad-related merchandise, including tools, collectibles, artwork, books and models. About 10,000 people are expected, ranging from expert model railroaders to the general, curious public.

“There’s always been a fascination with trains, because of their size,” said Bob Boelter, who does marketing and communications for the show and is among the 105 SCWD club members who help staff it.

Many older hobbyists got the model railroad bug in childhood. Boelter credits animated children’s TV shows such as public television’s “Thomas & Friends,” featuring Thomas the Tank Engine, and Disney’s “Chuggington” with keeping the fascination with trains alive in a new generation.

SCWD also sponsors a monthly youth group to help young people and their parents develop skills in model railroading. Youth members help out with the SCWD Model Railroad School held each January, and will have their own model railroad layout at next weekend’s show.

About 15 avid hobbyists in the Madison area, including the Webers, host monthly or even weekly “operating nights” in their homes. Fellow model train fans show up to work as engineers, dispatchers or railroad yard supervisors on the host’s layout to simulate a railroad operation in the real world.

Bill Clancy, who hosted a recent operating night, gutted the finished basement of his home in the Town of Middleton to create a two-level layout — with a mainline track the equivalent length of three football fields. Most of the layout and details he built himself.

“A lot of people don’t realize how complex railroading is,” said Clancy, the former head team physician for the UW athletic department who is also known as the inventor of the surgery used to repair torn ACLs.

Clancy, too, became interested in railroads as a boy. He fed his childhood fascination with models by heading most weekends to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and marveling at the beautifully detailed sets and scenes exhibited there, he said.

Model railroad enthusiasts often have interests in subjects that surround their hobby, such as history, industry, geology, electronics, art, architecture and travel, Boelter said.

Technology has had a great impact on model railroads in the last 20 years.

Formerly, electric trains ran on tracks in circles, with one power source linked to a single controller. Today, operators can run trains digitally, meaning many more trains can be run at once on multiple tracks, and switching operations can better mimic the real thing. Bluetooth technology makes it possible to even run model trains using a smartphone as a controller.

A sophisticated network of wires runs under the train tables in the Webers’ West Side basement, allowing the trains’ operators to make complex maneuvers. The couple’s layout, with many whimsical details and structures built by friends (and a mini-sized photographic backdrop that Rose Weber cut out using manicure scissors), is so vast that it takes a train 30 minutes to traverse the entire room.

Bill, a retired budget analyst, and Rose, a retired social worker, have hosted as many as 46 people for an operating night. They’ve ushered busloads of visitors into their basement to see their layout, and even had a photography class visit to take pictures.

“That’s why we built it,” Rose Weber said. “To share it with people.”


Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.